Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Why Did Bilam Limp?

Sometimes a single word in the bible allows us a completely different understanding of a story. This week's parasha (Balak) is a great example.

In the parasha we read:

ג  וַיֹּאמֶר בִּלְעָם לְבָלָק, הִתְיַצֵּב עַל-עֹלָתֶךָ, וְאֵלְכָה אוּלַי יִקָּרֵה יְהוָה לִקְרָאתִי, וּדְבַר מַה-יַּרְאֵנִי וְהִגַּדְתִּי לָךְ; וַיֵּלֶךְ, שֶׁפִי.
3 And Balaam said unto Balak: 'Stand by thy burnt-offering, and I will go; peradventure the LORD will come to meet me; and whatsoever He showeth me I will tell thee.' And he went to a bare height.
The last word in this pasuk שפי is an unusual one. Machon Mamre from which I took this translation, gives it as "bare height". However, is that the only possible meaning? SHEFI does not appear again in the bible, and so it's meaning is obscure. Onkelos and Rashi explain that it means that he went by himself. However the Talmud brings the opinion of Rabbi Yochanan  in Tractate Sotah (י ע"א ) who offers another opinion:

"בלעם חיגר ברגלו אחת היה, שנאמר: וילך שפי" (י ע"א).Bilam was a cripple in one leg as it says : He went SHEFI. 

Rashbam – one of the best sources of pshat adopts this interpretation. He also adds an explanation why Bilam was limping – because his leg was pressed against the wall by his ass when it was fleeing from the angel (see chap 22:25).  If we accept that SHEFI means limping or crippled, hopefully all your red lights should now be blinking. Why? Well do we know another person who on the way encountered an angel that tried to stop him, and after a struggle went away limping? Ya'acov Avinu.

Another similarity is the location from where Bilam and Ya'kov are coming from -Aram.
ז  וַיִּשָּׂא מְשָׁלוֹ, וַיֹּאמַר:  מִן-אֲרָם יַנְחֵנִי בָלָק מֶלֶךְ-מוֹאָב, מֵהַרְרֵי-קֶדֶם--לְכָה אָרָה-לִּי יַעֲקֹב, וּלְכָה זֹעֲמָה יִשְׂרָאֵל.
7 And he took up his parable, and said: From Aram Balak bringeth me, the king of Moab from the mountains of the East: 'Come, curse me Jacob, and come, execrate Israel.'

If we start thinking along the Aram line, we may want to start comparing Bilam to one of the few other gentiles to whom God appears – Lavan. Lavan is a native of Aram. Lavan is warned by God not to follow Jacob – much as Bilam is warned by god not to go to Israel.  Midrash Tanchuma (תצוה) (And tirgum Yonatan) add another level:
זה שאמר הכתוב: ותלחץ רגל בלעם אל הקיר (במדבר כב). הגל הוא הקיר, לפי שעבר בלעם את השבועה שנשבע ליעקב, שנאמר אם לא תעבור את הגל הזה ואת המצבה הזאת לרעה. ובלעם זה לבן, שנאמר: ארמי אובד אבי (דברים כו),  ...לכך נפרע הקיר ממנו, לפי שהוא העד על השבועה כדכתיב: יד העדים תהיה בו בראשונה (דברים יד). The heap is the wall, because Bilam broke the oath the he swore to Jacob, as it is said "if thee shall not pass this heap…" and Bilam is Lavan as it is said "Arami worked my father"… and that is why the wall was used to punish him, as it was a witness of their oath – as it is said "the hand of the witnesses will punish him first".

Is it possible that part of the story between Bilam and Israel is that Bilam is a descendant of Lavan (which explains his prophetic powers)? Avraham Avinu came from Aram. His family stayed there. It is only reasonable to think that they were somewhat unique, and closer to god. Perhaps we can guess that Bilam was some close relative, and that we are watching the rejected line (those who stayed in Aram) meeting the chosen line. 

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